ACLS

The Region October 9, 2023

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Joel Rayburn and Rania Kisar

  • ACLS ANALYSIS OF THE ISRAEL-GAZA CRISIS:  Iran’s Hamas Offensive and the Dilemma Facing U.S. Middle East Policy

Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Saturday morning into Israeli territory has changed the security balance in the Middle East, probably permanently.  Not since 1973 has Israeli territory been invaded in such a significant way.  As of Sunday evening, the attack has resulted in over 700 Israeli deaths and 2,000 wounded, with the casualty toll still rising.  Hamas fighters were able to penetrate into Israeli territory from more than two dozen entry points in vehicles, on foot, and even in paragliders.  They wreaked havoc in Israeli towns, slaughtered hundreds of people at a music festival, and took dozens of captives back into Gaza.  The number of Israelis killed so far is more than double the toll (317) of Israel’s worst day in the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan war.  Israelis are describing the Hamas attack as “Israel’s 9-11.”

Why Hamas and the Iranian Regime Launched the Attack

Also as of Sunday evening, Hamas and Hizballah officials have revealed to the media that the attack was sponsored, planned, and greenlit by the Iranian regime.  According to Wall Street Journal reporting, the Iranian-Hamas planning and preparations for the attack began in August.  The attack thus represents not just a significant new threat from Gaza-based Hamas, but also a capability by the Iranian regime to reach into Israel and pose an unprecedented threat to the security of Israeli communities.

For Hamas, the attack was not a reaction to any Israeli provocation, but instead a calculated and long-planned move to seize political control within the Palestinian territories and become the Palestinians’ sole political power.  Hamas has displayed military power far beyond that of any other faction and probably has rendered the 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah coalition irrelevant for the foreseeable future.  And since Hamas is an Iranian regime proxy, this outcome gives Supreme Leader Khameni and his regime the de facto control of the Palestinian cause he has always wanted.

How Israel Will Respond

Given the unprecedented capability to harm Israel that Hamas has now demonstrated, Israel will have no choice but to try to permanently destroy Hamas’s capability in Gaza.  The Israelis also have long believed they must restore deterrence against Hamas, Hizbllah, and the Iranian regime in any case, and Saturday’s attack will have convinced Israeli leaders that they can wait no longer to do this.   Israelis are also shocked by their apparent intelligence failure:  the fact that Hamas was able to assemble a large invasion force in Gaza without any detection or warning, despite the supposedly close monitoring of the Israeli intelligence agencies.  This failure is as damaging to Israel’s strategic deterrent of its enemies as the cost of the attack itself, and many Israelis believe it stems from Israel’s months of growing internal divisions and distractions.

The retaliation has already begun:  Israeli forces are already bombarding Hamas targets in Gaza by air and with artillery, and Israeli special operators have already captured or killed several of Hamas’s most senior military commanders.  The Israeli retaliation will be different and harder-hitting than ever before. The Israelis will not countenance another military operation that leaves Hamas intact enough to come back and pose the same kind of threat again, as happened after the 2008, 2014, and 2021 Gaza wars.  The Israeli army is almost certain to mount a major ground offensive into Gaza this time, and it is highly likely to be more extensive than Israel’s previous major ground incursion in 2008. The Israelis will wind up destroying much of Gaza in the course of such an operation, especially since Hamas deliberately operates from within civilian areas and facilities.  The consequences for Gaza will be ugly, and as the images of civilian casualties and destroyed infrastructure mount, the Israelis will face a rising tide of international pressure to break off their campaign before they accomplish their military objectives.  But having just suffered Hamas’s attack, the Israelis will judge that they have no choice but to see the ground campaign through to its conclusion, regardless of international pressure.

How the Gaza War Will Likely Expand

What the Israelis are going to feel compelled to do–destroy Hamas’s capabilities forever–is something the Iranian regime will try very hard to prevent.  If Israel does mount a major campaign against Hamas in Gaza, one different in scale and severity than in 2021, the Iranian regime will seek to relieve pressure on Hamas by opening a northern front against Israel, which Tehran will calculate must be done to enable Hamas to survive intact. The likelihood of the Iranian regime opening up a serious attack against Israel from Syria or Lebanon, or both, will increase if the Israeli operation in Gaza begins to threaten Hamas’s survival–as the Israelis will intend it to do.  This is the very scenario for which the Iranian regime has invested years in establishing new strategic outposts inside Syria from which to threaten Israel, just as it has already established with Hizballah in Lebanon.  The Iranian regime and Hizballah will judge that the Israelis do not have the ability to conduct campaigns on the southern and northern fronts at the same time.  The Israelis will judge that they have to mobilize the military assets to prove the Iranian regime and Hizballah wrong, thereby restoring deterrence.

Hizballah, however, will see Hamas’s fate connected to its own.  If Hamas is destroyed, Hassan Nasrallah and Hizballah have to conclude that they could be next.  Nasrallah and his IRGC sponsors therefore cannot afford to sit idle while Israel destroys Hamas in Gaza.  They will eventually be compelled to intervene, because if the Israelis no longer face a southern threat, they will be free to focus all their attention on the northern one.

The High Risk of a Wider War

The Biden administration apparently recognizes the likelihood that the Iranian regime will seek to open an additional front against Israel, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on Sunday that he was sending additional U.S. naval and air forces to the eastern mediterranean.  The purpose of these U.S. reinforcements will be to deter the Iranians from expanding the Gaza war or from targeting U.S. troops in the region, and possibly to be prepared to evacuate American civilians from Israel and neighboring countries in the event that the conflict escalates.

If the Iranian regime does open a northern war with Israel, the risk of a broader escalation becomes high, and not just because of the Israel-Hamas dynamic or the new deployment of U.S. forces. As we note below (see ACLS SPECIAL REPORT ON THE ESCALATING NORTHERN SYRIA CRISIS), the complicated, multi-level conflict in Syria has already escalated significantly in the past week. There is more intense fighting going on across both northwest and northeast Syria than at any time in almost four years. The danger extends to Iraq as well.  In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian regime and its Iraqi proxies have been using political and economic pressure to try to paralyze the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the aim of collapsing or partitioning the KRG and perhaps even making the U.S. military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan untenable.

All this is to say that the entire northern Middle East is already unstable with escalating conflicts, and thus the risk of a bigger explosion involving the Iranian regime and its proxies, Russia, Turkiye, and the United States may be higher than at any time in the past decade.

The Iranian Regime’s Regional Objectives…

For Supreme Leader Khamenei and his regime, in the larger picture the Hamas attack was a strategic move to halt whatever momentum was gathering behind the U.S. administration’s initiative to broker a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  This Iranian regime gambit will almost certainly succeed.  The Israelis have likely judged that they have no choice but to make their harshest retaliation ever against Hamas, far more severe than their Gaza operation of 2008, and their campaign against Gaza will produce images of destruction that Israel’s Arab partners (and potential partners) will almost certainly feel compelled to condemn. The Iranian regime will thus have succeeded in stopping the momentum of the Abraham Accords for the foreseeable future.

..and the Dilemma Now Facing U.S. Middle East Policy

The Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been based on two interconnected ideas:  first, that detente between the United States and the Iranian regime can be accomplished and will create conditions for de escalating all the regional conflicts in which the Iranian regime is involved, and second, that integrating the region (including the Iranian and Syrian regimes) economically will give all the regional actors an incentive peace and stability. 

The Iranian regime’s sponsorship of the Hamas offensive against Israel has shown these ideas to be unrealistic.  In the face of Tehran’s aggressive destabilization of the Levant, the U.S. administration will have great difficulty continuing its pursuit of a restoration of the Iran nuclear agreement, which has involved negotiating to unfree the Iranian regime’s frozen funds in several countries and deliberately not enforcing U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports.  The result has been tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues for Tehran as the Iranian regime can now sell as many as two million barrels of oil each day.  The administration will have great difficulty allowing this flow of Iranian regime revenues to continue at the same time that Israel is girding for potential war with Tehran’s proxies and American warships and warplanes are reinforcing the eastern Mediterranean. These two policies cannot exist side by side for much longer.  

As of Monday, the U.S. administration is not yet ready to openly acknowledge this new reality.  On Sunday, Administration spokesmen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were quick to claim they saw no evidence of an Iranian hand in the Hamas attack against Israel, even as Hamas itself publicly declared they had executed their attack in full partnership with the Iranian regime.  On Sunday evening, Blinken added that he had encouraged Turkiye to advocate for a cease fire–even as Israel is on a full war footing, mobilizing more than 300,000 reserve troops and preparing for a ground assault on Gaza, and a U.S. carrier strike group is on its way to the region.  

The old formula for Hamas-Israeli clashes, in which Hamas hits Israel in a limited way, the Israelis respond in a limited way, all parties pretend the Iranian regime is not involved, and the rest of the region goes on as before, is no longer tenable.  Since taking office, President Biden and his team have picked up where the Obama administration left off, hoping to avert war and instability in the Middle East by unilaterally withdrawing American attention and leadership from the region, assuming that the longstanding U.S.-led security order in the region will be naturally replaced by some kind of multipolar, integrated calm.  The Iranian regime and Hamas have shown that that approach cannot work.  The Biden administration will either have to take the steps necessary to reestablish strategic deterrence for the U.S. and its allies, or face a reckoning whose outcome no one can predict.

  • ACLS SPECIAL REPORT ON THE NORTHERN SYRIA CRISIS:  Offensives by Assad/Russia and Turkiye Threaten U.S. and Allied Interests

As we noted above, the past week has witnessed an escalation in the Syrian conflict not seen since early 2020.  Intensifying clashes across both northwest and northeast Syria could unhinge the U.S. position in Syria and derail the international counterterrorism campaign there and in Iraq.  More than ever before, northern Syria has become a proxy battleground for Iran, Russia, and Turkiye to an extent that endangers U.S. interests and that risks once again creating power vacuums that extremist groups can exploit. 

For the past three days, global attention has focused on Israel, overshadowing the increasing risks in northern Syria. Backed by Russian airpower and Iranian military assistance, the Assad regime has intensified its artillery and rocket attacks, notably in Idlib and Aleppo. These attacks were already underway when a drone strike killed and wounded hundreds of people at the Assad regime’s military academy on 5 October, narrowly missing the Syrian defense minister and other top military brass who were on hand for a graduation ceremony. Immediately after the strike, the Assad regime and Russia stepped up their massive bombardment against communities in opposition-held territory. 

Meanwhile, in the northeast of Syria, Turkiye has launched dozens of drone strikes against infrastructure and military bases of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, ostensibly in response to a major terrorist bombing in Ankara carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on 1 October.  Turkish leaders said the PKK bombers were connected to the YPG, the Kurdish component of the SDF.  The Turkish aerial bombardment has created immense pressure on the U.S.-SDF counterterrorism partnership in eastern Syria, and has also brought U.S.-Turkish relations to a new low:  in one instance, an attacking Turkish drone was shot down by a U.S. aircraft when it approached a base where U.S. troops are stationed.  Turkish forces have targeted 131 sites in northeast Syria within a 48-hour period, including essential infrastructure operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces’ local civil administration.

The Turkish air campaign has paralyzed the counter-ISIS campaign in northeast Syria at a time when ISIS has been trying to make a comeback, launching dozens of attacks using sleeper cells and exploiting the worsening tensions between the SDF and some Arab tribes in the Euphrates River Valley region.  Under attack from Turkiye in the north, the SDF are increasingly turning their attention away from the ISIS problem in the south.

Within this unstable environment, the Iranian regime is also a major player, seeking to expand its geopolitical influence while challenging U.S. interests in the region. Through a network of militias, Iran has strengthened its military presence, notably via the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This presence also enables the flow of arms and resources to Hamas in Gaza.

Against this strategic backdrop, ACLS is tracking the following details of the worsening northern Syria crisis.

Northern Syria Military/Humanitarian Situation as of 8 October: 

The conflict in Syria has seen extensive targeting of infrastructure and cities by both Turkish and Russian forces in the past few days. While Turkish operations have significantly affected the country’s northeast, including its oil facilities and power stations, both the Assad regime and Russian forces have also targeted various cities like Idlib, Aleppo, and Latakia. The use of heavy artillery and specialized munitions, such as phosphorus bombs, has resulted in numerous casualties. Critical infrastructure like hospitals, power plants, and water stations have also been hit, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the entire north. If the military escalation continues, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate drastically. A statistical prediction suggests a 40-50% increase in civilian casualties and a 30-35% rise in internal displacement rates within the next month. Essential services like healthcare and utilities are already strained and could collapse under continued conflict.

Highlights, 6-8 October:

  • Total Incidents: 90 (Assad, Iran, and Russia ) + 131 (Turkish Operations) = 221
  • Heavy Artillery Use: 72 (Assad, Iran, and Russia) +  117 (Turkish Operations) = 189
  • Rocket Launcher Use: 14
  • Air Strikes: 10 (Assad, Iran, and Russia) + 17 (Turkish Operations) = 27
  • Drone Strikes: 3 (Assad, Iran, and Russia) + 45 (Turkish Operations) = 48
  • Areas Targeted:  Idlib, Aleppo, Kobani, Hasakah, Qamishli, Derik, Ain Issa, Manbij. 

Northwest Syria Infrastructure Targeted by Assad/Iran/Russia:

  • Educational Facilities: 6 
  • Camps: 6 
  • Hospitals: 4
  • Health Centers: 4
  • Government Facilities: 4
  • Civil Community Centers: 3

Northeast Syria Infrastructure Targeted by Turkish Operations:

  • Government Outposts: 4 
  • Hospitals: 2 
  • Water Stations: 3 
  • Oil Facilities: 20 
  • Power Stations: 14 

Highlights by Region: 

  • Idlib & Aleppo:The initial toll includes 49 civilians killed and 167 injured, along with mass displacement. The Syrian regime and Russia targeted more than 15 cities and towns in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. 
  • Idlib: Syrian opposition media, Syria TV reported that the Assad regime used chemical chlorine on Jabal Al Zawiah and Jisr Shughour killing more than 20 people and injuring 64 civilians, including 18 children and 13 women. Concurrently, opposition factions in Idlib responded by striking seven towns under regime control, the next day. 
  • Idlib & Aleppo: Syrian White Helmets said that fires broke out as a result of bombing with missiles loaded with napalm incendiary bombs that targeted Jisr Shughour and Darat Azza without causing any casualties. 
  • Aleppo: Turkish forces targeted the northern countryside, including Tal Rifaat and the vicinity of the city. The Assad regime army targeted the city and its northern countryside with heavy artillery and rocket launchers. 
  • Turkish forces targeted the northern countryside, including Tal Rifaat and the vicinity of the city.
  • Latakia: Russian warplanes targeted Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham positions and the Al-Kabina Mountains.
  • Kobani: Turkish forces targeted multiple villages and a Covid hospital. Heavy artillery on villages west and east of Kobani.
  • Hasakah: Turkish drones targeted the Hamz Bek and Qarjukh stations. Power plant and water station hit by Turkish operations.
  • Qamishli: Major power disruptions; 21 sites targeted by Turkish operations.
  • Derik: Covid hospital demolished; Sweidiya gas plant damaged by Turkish operations.
  • Ain Issa: Heavy artillery on villages and government positions by Turkish forces.
  • Manbij: Heavy artillery on multiple villages by Turkish forces.

The Humanitarian Impact:  These military operations are having a severe humanitarian impact on the ground across northern Syria.  Civilian deaths and injuries are mounting, especially in Idlib and Aleppo, where both the Assad regime (with its allies) and Turkiye are conducting airstrikes.  The Assad regime has reportedly used phosphorous bombs and chlorine gas in northwest Syria.  At least two hospitals have been struck by Turkish airstrikes, while Turkish bombardment has also resulted in a near-total disruption of water, electricity, and fuel supply in parts of northeast Syria.  Humanitarian workers have been forced to suspend their operations in at least one refugee camp as a result of Turkish operations.

Conclusion

So far, the U.S. administration has not acknowledged that the conflicts in northwest Syria, northeast Syria, and Israel are interconnected and serve Iran’s broader strategy to destabilize the region.  But continuing to treat them as separate cases is preventing the United States from guarding its interests and regional stability.  Simply put, northern Syria has become a tinderbox, with Iran, Russia, Turkiye, and Assad all holding matches.  Once started, the fire will burn everyone’s fingers, including America’s.

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